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Veto State
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Andrew Freedman @ 10:00 AM

No one ever said that international diplomacy proceeds swiftly on environmental issues. Or if they did say that, they were mistaken and you should correct them because you're a good person.

Many treaties take a decade or more before they enter into force, for example. Diplomacy on the climate change issue has been ongoing since at least the 1980s, and the first major agreement committing the world to voluntary emissions reductions came out of the Rio conference in 1992.

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One of the central characteristics of diplomacy pertaining to complex environmental issues such as global climate change is that the consensus required for action can enable a single country or bloc of countries to block meaningful action on the problem, because they're the ones upon whom the success of the environmental policies depends. (This "veto coalition" concept was put forth by Chasek, Downie and Brown in the book "Global Environmental Governance").

With climate change, the U.S. is currently playing the role of a veto state, and it's becoming increasingly clear that the Arctic ice cap will disappear before that changes.

This reality was evident at all three of the major "climate week" events last week: a state-level forum at the United Nations General Assembly, a conference hosted by former president Bill Clinton, and President Bush's multilateral ministerial-level meeting in Washington.

The most remarkable thing about those meetings was the extent to which the U.S. managed to cling wholeheartedly to its approach of voluntary emissions reductions despite the international (and increasingly national) consensus to hop aboard the 'mandatory cuts train to cooler climate-ville'.

It's amazing that such a huge gathering of world leaders could take place without yielding any tangible progress other than the hardening of pre-Bali negotiating positions. In other words, the sheer scale of inaction was impressive.

Examples of U.S. obstinacy were plentiful. President Bush eschewed making a U.N. floor speech on climate change, instead choosing to take part in a "working dinner" with other world leaders.

"Mr. Prime Minister, for the last time, you're not going get me to sign onto Kyoto by refusing to give me one of those delicious multi grain rolls. Now hand 'em over."

The official negotiating position of the U.S. leading up to its meeting of major polluters in D.C. late last week was that America would not change course, and that in fact its voluntary initiatives are working wonders. ("Stay the course. A thousand points of light" anyone?)

At first it would seem that the U.S. stance is ineffective. But that's only if you want to produce a particular agreement. In fact, the decision to play the role of a veto state in international climate policy negotiations could in the end get the U.S. what it wants: an agreement consistent with pro-growth economic policies.

Yet even in that case the current attitude of the Bush administration doesn't make complete sense either, because if an alternative approach is what it wants, why haven't they put forth an alternative agreement for discussion? Assuming that the goal of playing the role of a veto state on climate change is to hold out and shape a better agreement, the U.S is doing a great job of holding out, but a terrible job of making it clear what it would like the ultimate agreement to look like.

For example, at the Washington meeting with representatives from 17 nations, the European Commission and the U.N., President Bush offered only the assurance that we know what we're doing.

"What I'm telling you is, is that we've got a strategy," Bush said, according to Greenwire. "We've got a comprehensive approach."

Just as you should never trust anyone who says "just trust me on this," so too should you be wary of anyone who tells you they have a strategy without telling you what that strategy is exactly.

Worse yet, The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the Bush White House either failed to promote or fought against many of the voluntary programs it was touting as its climate change successes at the conference.

So if the administration isn't fully committed to voluntary actions, why should other nations even bother trying to deal with us on this anymore?

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